My insomniac self and lessons on Buddhist equanimity

On average we are supposed to spend a third of our lives asleep, and yet, sleep and dream states remain insufficiently understood. Sleep is clouded in mystery and a source of rich ongoing research for scientists and philosophers. Most significantly, we can’t seem to bend it to our will. Any insomniac or light sleeper knows that ghastly and hollow feeling of desperation when trying to fall asleep. This desperation is made worse if your partner or a close family is snoring peacefully nearby. How is it that one person can flick off the switch and slide into a dreamworld, whilst another cannot? I am a periodic insomniac and I have asked myself this far too many times to count. Its a mercurial thing, sleep — perhaps like desire — the more you try to obtain it, the further it slips from your grasp.

It was during one of my endlessly wakeful nights that I stumbled upon Bill Hayes’s brilliant part memoir, part psychological, philosophical and social study titled, Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir. Hayes describes how he was brought up in a household where the quality of your sleep was a daily point of discussion around the breakfast table. If his brooding Irish father were to answer, ‘How did you sleep?’, during this ritual with, ‘lousy’, the family knew that the rest of the day was to be coloured in grey and marked by sharp edges.

Hayes was to inherit his father’s restlessness from an early age and grew into a chronic insomniac in his adult years. To Hayes, an insomniac is a “shadow of his daylight self, existing nightlong on nothing but the fumes of consciousness”. As the night progressed into ever darker and stiller hours, I read Hayes’s words and was struck by their poetic beauty. In that graveyard hour, I could not help but find this beauty odd. Surely, there is nothing poetic or beautiful about sleeplessness. Its uncomfortable and fraught with anxiety and self-depreciation (much like constipation, insomnia makes me feel an acute sense of failure to take adequate command of basic human functioning. If I can’t sleep and shit, then what can I possibly do?!).

Yet, for Hayes, his complex musings on insomnia contributed to a successful writing career and attracted his lifetime love. The now past luminary, neuroscientist and applauded writer, Oliver Sacks, responded to Sleep Demons in a fan mail letter (if someone famous like Sacks could be described as sending fan mail to a far less widely known figure), and so began their intense relationship.

Perhaps what ignited Sack’s passion for Sleep Demons and Hayes’ mind in general was that Hayes so eloquently illustrated how the vexing questions of sleep (why do we dream?; why do we wake?; what is the difference between deep sleep and a coma state?) are in fact deeply metaphysical questions. Pondering on sleep and dreams, is akin to rummaging through the annals of human consciousness and existence. Like the study of metaphysics, questions on sleep seem to evade being mastered and only unfold into ever more perplexing questions.

And this journey of mastery (metaphysical and physical) cannot be attempted whilst reclining on the soft blue pillow of sleeping tablets. These are an alluring yet poor and superficial panacea. Hayes reminds us that the,

“difference between drugged and natural sleep eventually reveals itself, like the difference between an affair and true romance. It shows in your eyes. Sleep acts in this regard more like an emotion that a body function. It resists pursuit.”

This is because natural, healthy sleep follows a pattern of roughly 90 minute cycles, propelling the sleeper along a circuit of four different stages. Drugged sleep does not beat in time with circadian rhythms — its a more like a stupor. Most crucial to a natural sleep pattern is the fourth stage, called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which follows the progression from light to deep sleep stages, and ends the 90 minute cycle. Interestingly, infants go straight into this REM stage and only have one other sleep stage called ‘quiet sleep’ in which they appear so removed and peaceful they are almost breathless. REM is a stage of sleep that cannot be fast tracked or artificially induced. It is a state lasting about 10minutes in the first cycle which gets progressively longer over each cycle. Your last REM period before waking can last up to an hour. Scientists believe that in this time the body is entirely immune to pain because muscles become unresponsive and paralysed in a condition called atonia. This is considered to be the time in which most dreams occur and these dreams are particularly vivid. The rapid eye movement detected under closed lids is thought to be indicative of intense visualisation; ultimate escape, regardless of the acuteness of waking discomfort.

For Hayes, this shows that dreaming represents a separate biological state altogether, one that is ebulliently visual, yet free of suffering. To many cultures across the ages, heaven, or afterlife states, are imagined as an eternal dream. Conversely, hell (for those cultures that conceive of this) is oftentimes characterised as an eternal nightmare. Most poignantly in Dante’s Inferno, hell is a never ending state of sleeplessness. What does it mean then to hardly ever, or infrequently, reach into a dreamworld of release and dissolution?

Heaven or hell? Where do you journey to?

Rosalind Cartwright has chronicled her study on deep sleep, REM sleep and depression in The Twenty-four Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in our Emotional Lives. Cartwright finds that the first REM period begins too in early and lasts abnormally long for those who are depressed. This has the effect of off-setting the deep-sleep state, when a large amount of human growth hormone is released and the body repairs. Deep sleep is healing sleep. It is when our brain waves are in delta state (close to 0 Hz) and dreaming takes place, but it is difficult to retrieve or recall. It is when memory consolidation occurs and usually precedes and works amicably with the vivid escape of REM.

Cartwright argues that dreams are a form of emotional digestion carried forward from our waking hours into sleep. Experiences with emotional components that we have not sufficiently cognised and dealt with are “modulated”. She describes deep-sleep, followed by bursts of REM, as a process that regulates what is troublesome for us emotionally. Quite simply, a negative mood can be “down-regulated” overnight, yet for those who are depressed the mechanics of sleep transmute and habitually disallow sufficient digestion, frustratingly blocking the very thing needed to heal. Natural sleep, good sleep, regular sleep, is not just imperative for emotional and mental health, but is deeply intertwined with the fabric of our essential being:

“Sleep is a busy time, interweaving streams of thought with emotional values attached as they fit or challenge the organisational structure that represents our identity”.

It is just this knowledge of how imperative sleep is that sends me into states of anxiety about missing out on nocturnal bliss. Yet some insomniacs have been able to positively embrace this aspect of themselves, leading them to heightened productivity, creative or otherwise. The very lack of sleep in their lives is a marker of identity and said key to success. Indeed, a favourite author of mine and astute political commentator, Teju Cole, writes in his most recent collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, about how he wakes in the early hours of the morning to a stream of elucidated thoughts. He describes the cool night air wafting through his window and steady rhythm of his laptop as he produces work of astounding clarity and authenticity.

In a later book, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, Bill Hayes writes of how when he moved to New York from California he took a step closer to accepting his nocturnal unrest: “In the haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my mind racing at night, I recognised my insomniac self.” He recognised too that sharp edges and grime mingle with beauty and grace. It was in the uncompromising beat of a world-capital mega-city where energy is so viscerally frenzied that Hayes was able to observe and appreciate the pattern of his unceasing and demanding thoughts.

In this I resonate with something I have learnt through my periodic brutal powwows with insomnia. The moment you give up trying to sleep and instead do something you enjoy, that is simultaneously commanding of your attention and creative — such as reading, writing, painting, drawing — you tend to relax and release pressure and emphasis on the control of the over-stimulated pre-frontal cortex. In my experience, insomnia settles into the creases of my duvet like the grim reaper when this organising, planning, thinking part of the brain gains tyranny and will not give way to sleep and dreams. Some argue that meditation has a similar effect and is a powerful means to bring on sleep. I must admit that when I battle with sleep my mind is usually too stimulated to readily settle into a fruitful meditation. Thrashing out some words, however, is always possible.

There is a distinguishable Buddhist strain to this experience as described by Hayes. That is one of equanimity. I first learnt of this through Vipassana meditation and simply put it means being at ease and observing without judgement. That moment when one comes to terms with their unplanned or undesired nighttime restlessness, is a moment of observance, non-judgement, and eventually acceptance. For me, this has been a moment of relaxation and profound wisdom. Hayes speaks to this when he describes his new life in New York as giving rise to the recognition of “those rare moments when the world seems to shed shyness and displays every possible permutation of beauty”. In New York, Hayes finds himself by ceasing to struggle, and starting to observe without judgement in the midnight hours.

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*I am no homeopathic specialist (but my mother is) and I have found the following three herbal remedies taken in conjunction to work exceptionally well for safe management of insomnia, or irregular sleep patterns:

  • Valerian (comes in a tablet form called ReDormin by Flordis, or Dr Vogel uses it in Dormesan), 2 tablets at night after dinner.
  • Passion flower tincture (30 drops on the tongue every half hour after dinner leading up to bedtime)
  • Lemon balm tea. Small cup brewed for 5minutes, just before bed.